Sometimes movies and TV shows are of their time. They manage to capture the concerns of the people at a given point. This week, among the new and notable streaming fare, we have a movie about the endless war in the Middle East, a comedy special about cultural tolerance, a nightmarish thriller about the seamy underbelly of “normal” America, a chiller about a victim of violence who takes charge of her destiny.
Sometimes genre films indirectly express our fears and desires, as is the case with this collection’s two superhero films, as well as a zombie flick, ghost story, and tale of murder. Alas, there’s also some good old escapism, if reminders of reality are a bit too much, in the form of a trapped spaceman and a couple of wisecracking robots making fun of bad movies.
War Machine (Netflix)
Perhaps Netflix’s biggest original film thus far, starring no less than Brad Pitt in the lead role, David Michod’s War Machine (2017) could have been a game changer. But rather than being a major “must see,” it’s more of a “worth seeing.” It’s a fairly complex comedy-drama, based loosely on Michael Hastings’s nonfiction book The Operators, about a super, badass general Glen McMahon (Pitt), who is sent into Afghanistan to take charge of the war and hopefully clean things up; the general, for his part, hopes simply to “win” the war. Instead, he finds himself shuffling through various meetings, submitting reports, and waiting for local elections.
Scoot McNairy narrates, helping to explain why the entire war is a maze that keeps turning back upon itself, a grim realization that seems more wasteful and tragic than it is funny. Then, McNairy turns up about 2/3 of the way through the film as Rolling Stone journalist Sean Cullen, who changes McMahon’s fate. The Australian writer/director Michod made the terrific Animal Kingdom (2010), a serious crime drama, and his talents don’t appear entirely suited to balancing this films’ many balls in the air. But Pitt is excellent, and there are a few laughs, as well as some harsh, crucial lessons. Anthony Michael Hall plays one of the general’s men, Meg Tilly is his wife, and Tilda Swinton, Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace, Alan Ruck, Griffin Dunne, Lakeith Stanfield, Will Poulter, and others appear in (very) small roles. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Doctor Strange (Netflix)
The 14th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series had Benedict Cumberbatch going for it, but otherwise, it might have been a risky prospect. This character was hardly the most popular in the comic pages, and the director hired for the project, Scott Derrickson, had only a handful of less-than-satisfactory horror movies to his name, including a lowly Hellraiser sequel, and a lethargic remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. But the magic of this Marvel series lies in the frequency with which the films are issued, and in the surprisingly high quality of each, not to mention its emphasis on colors, clarity, emotionally appealing characters, and fun. (The same cannot be said of so many other grim blockbusters.) Doctor Strange (2016), amazingly, was no exception.
Cumberbatch plays an egomaniacal, selfish surgeon who injures his hands in a bad crash, and searches for ways to return himself to his former glory. His quest brings him to Kathmandu and into the company of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and he agrees to study with her. Unfortunately, Rachel McAdams, as the doctor’s ladyfriend, gets a little lost in the proceedings. Before long, a bad guy (calm, menacing Mads Mikkelsen) tries to take over the world, and our doctor must begin fighting while still unsure of his magical powers. It’s much funnier than you’d expect; so many movies in this sorcery-type genre take themselves seriously to an icy degree, but this one is light on its feet, and very imaginative. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Benjamin Bratt also star.
Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King (Netflix)
Born in California to Indian parents, comedian Hasan Minhaj made the news in April when he performed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, giving an amazing, crowd-killing speech on current events. Now his new comedy special Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King (2017) is a Netflix original, and it’s very much worth seeing for different reasons. Filmed in Davis, California—Minhaj’s hometown—the special isn’t especially laugh-out-loud funny, but it is an exemplary piece of monologue writing, with a strong performance as well. Minhaj even wears a clip-on microphone to keep his hands free for gesturing and miming, while the wall behind the stage is used for funny, illustrative slides and pictures.
The 72-minute piece consists largely of one story, a chunk of Minhaj’s life from his childhood, moving to a humiliating experience from his high school years, and concluding with the modern-day revisiting of that incident. He deftly creates the character of his father, raising Minhaj alone in Davis while his mother remained, for a time, in India. He establishes the rules of “brown people” parenting and family before bringing in his surprise younger sister. In high school, he befriends a white girl from Nebraska, and they are supposed—supposed—to go to the prom together. Years later, he meets her again, and it creates an epiphany. Minhaj turns all this into an extremely thoughtful and powerful plea for cultural tolerance and empathy, when it seems more desperately needed than ever. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.
The current Wonder Woman seems destined for great things, while another movie about a costumed woman, Catwoman (2004), was one of the most brutally panned movies of its year. It won four Razzie awards; star Halle Berry famously picked up her award for Worst Actress in person. The French-born director was named only “Pitof,” which probably could not have been more pretentious, so it was easy to see the entire thing as a misguided, off-course trainwreck. However, it’s a great deal campier, more colorful, and more fun than most of the other recent, male-led DC adaptations, and it’s a good candidate for an evening of silliness. Berry is, of course, the movie’s high point. If she’s the victim of the “male gaze” in her skin-tight catsuit—with stiletto heels that are probably not the wisest choice for climbing buildings—then she’s certainly awesome enough to withstand it.
She plays Patience Phillips (not “Selina Kyle”), who works for a shady cosmetics company. When she discovers that one of their products is dangerous, she is killed, and brought back to life, with superpowers, thanks to the breath of some kind of Egyptian magical cat. From there, she battles with company woman Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone)—in a fantastically over-the-top performance—and makes eyes with handsome detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt). Alex Borstein co-stars as Patience’s pal. Frankly, I enjoyed it, and to my eyes, it’s not nearly as bad as some other 2004 releases, including Alexander, Blade: Trinity, Christmas with the Kranks, King Arthur, Meet the Fockers, The Phantom of the Opera, Surviving Christmas, Van Helsing, Welcome to Mooseport, and White Chicks.